22 October 2020

Pasokification of British Labour

 The results of last week's UK general election were surprising and shocking for many. There were two reasons for this: the unexpected increase in Tory seats, which confounded pollsters and allowed the Conservative Party to form a government without coalition partners; and the dramatic gap they revealed between Scottish politics and the other nations of the UK, as all the major British parties were almost completely wiped out, with the Scottish National Party taking 56 out of 59 seats.

 For the last five years, the Conservatives, in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, have imposed brutal austerity cuts to British public spending, leading to mass movements of students angry at increases in tuition fees, strikes by public sector workers, increasing homelessness and mass protests as welfare changes contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands of people with disabilities.

Labour, the main opposition party with its roots in social democracy and the trade union movement, failed in offering much credible opposition to this programme. Cowed by the power of the right wing media, they accepted early after their defeat in 2010 the Tory version of events: austerity was necessary, as the previous Labour government had overspent, with no reference to the crisis of global capitalism that was beyond the power of the British government. This patently false story led them into aping Tory policies, claiming themselves as “the party of fiscal responsibility.” Although their manifesto did contain real differences with the Conservatives, they also committed to austerity , and further crackdowns against welfare claimants and immigrants.

 In the weeks running up to the election, polls had indicated Labour and the Conservatives running virtually neck-and-neck, leading most to conclude the result was too close to call. What was most expected was a hung parliament, and the need for whichever party came first relying on coalition partners.

 This led to much speculation as it became clear that Labour was facing electoral extinction in the face of the SNP in Scotland, and may rely on that party in order to govern. This became the focus of the Conservative campaign in the final weeks, with the right wing press describing Scotland as “holding the UK to ransom”, and billboards released with pictures of former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond picking a pocket with the tagline “Don't Let the SNP Grab Your Cash.”

 The xenophobic anti-Scottish campaign appears to have had its desired effect. Under pressure, Labour insisted they would make no deal with the SNP for power, and right wing English voters moved back from UKIP to the Conservatives fearing Scottish power, helping to give the Tories their slim majority. What all of this conveniently ignores is that the SNP had won a democratic election, and to exclude them a priori from any part in power sent a powerful message to Scotland that they were welcome as part of the UK – as long as they vote the right way. (Meanwhile, under the outdated electoral system used for British elections, the Conservatives were able to form a government with just 25% of the popular vote.)

 Labour had assumed natural dominance of electoral politics in urban working class politics since at least the 1920's. There was a famous phrase that a Labour Party rosette could be pinned on a dog in certain parts of Lanarkshire and it would be elected. Some of the MP's who lost seats last week had been in position since the 70's and 80's. However, there has been a long process of disenchantment for Scottish voters with Labour through the years of Tony Blair, the Iraq War, ineffective opposition to austerity and finally campaigning alongside the Tories in last year's Scottish Independence referendum.

 Labour are in a state of growing decay which has been dubbed 'Pasokification', after the former Greek governing party PASOK, which was virtually annihilated after it proved incapable of standing up to the demands international financial institutions put on Greece. Across Europe to varying degrees traditional social democrat parties face the same dilemma. If they cannot mount effective opposition to austerity and social crisis, their voting base begins to see them as irrelevant, and not fit for purpose. In countries such as Greece, they have been replaced by parties to their left. But in France the strength of the FN shows this is far from inevitable. In the UK this process has progressed far father in Scotland than England, with a common election slogan being 'Red Tories Out.'

The SNP are far from the radicals that say, Syriza may be. Their manifesto was in many ways similar to Labour. But they ran their election on two key issues – opposition to austerity, demanding a small increase in public spending, and outright opposition to the renewal of Britain's nuclear weapons of mass destruction, all of which are based in Scotland in the face of huge public opposition. Both set them clearly to the left of Labour in the public mind.

However left you judge the SNP's policies to actually be, their rise heralds the death of British politics, represented in Scotland by the Labour Party. Despite the No vote in last year's independence referendum, constitutional issues continue to be a key dividing line of Scottish politics. When a government with a radical right agenda is in power in London with no democratic mandate in Scotland, it cannot but help keep them firmly on the agenda. The Conservatives have promised a referendum on membership of the EU. This is likely to highlight further tensions, and may lead to intensified demands from the mass independence movement for another chance to vote for Scottish independence.

Meanwhile, in London itself, mass protests broke out outside Downing Street (home to the Prime Minister's residence) on the weekend immediately following the vote, showing there is far from consensus surrounding the new government's programme. It will fall to people throughout the UK to mount as great an opposition as possible to their continued goal of dismantling the welfare state, privatising the National Health Service and curbing rights for individuals and trade unions.

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